October 5 marked the first anniversary of the extradition of the British Muslim duo Talha Ahsan and Babar Ahmad to the United States to face charges relating to their alleged support of “terrorists” in Afghanistan and Chechnya.
The pair are accused of running the Azzam.com website, which carried news and reports from the battlefields of Bosnia, Chechnya and later Afghanistan, as a fundraising and recruiting vehicle for extremists. Both men have pleaded not guilty in the US to the charges against them.
The disturbing circumstances surrounding their arrest, detention and extradition are well-known: Both men were indicted on the basis that one of the servers used by the offending website was located in Connecticut, allowing US prosecutors to claim that an offence had been committed on US soil. Ahmad was violently beaten by police during his arrest and in 2009 won £60,000 in compensation after London’s Metropolitan Police admitted subjecting him to a “serious, gratuitous, and prolonged attack”. Indeed Ahmad, who was held in detention for eight years in the UK, holds the dubious distinction of having been held without trial longer than any other British citizen in modern history.
Less well known perhaps are the political double standards and machinations that compound the men’s ongoing ordeal. Barely two weeks after their extradition the Home Secretary Teresa May blocked the extradition of Gary McKinnon under the same legislation on the grounds that the computer hacker, who wormed his way into the US military’s computer systems, suffers from Asperger Syndrome, a condition which was likely to place him at high risk of suicide.
In 2009 Talha Ahsan was independently diagnosed to also have Asperger Syndrome as well as depressive illness and consequently judged to be a high suicide risk. He is currently incarcerated in Connecticut “Supermax Prison” in solitary confinement in the same type of isolative detention described by Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, as cruel and inhuman and a violation of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Gary McKinnon contested his extradition request on administrative bail while Ahmad and Ahsan challenged theirs from behind bars in high security prisons.
The parallels between the pair are glaringly obvious – their fates strikingly different.
Consider also the gravity of their respective indictments. Ahsan and Ahmad allegedly helped recruit and rally Muslims to take up arms against occupying forces using a website that was – only partially – hosted on a US server. McKinnon, on the other hand, is described by US prosecutors as having perpetrated the “biggest military computer hack of all time”.
The compassion extended to non-Muslim victims of the scrofulous, one-sided Extradition Act was again in evidence last week when the British government agreed with its US counterpart to allow British a British businessman to fly back and serve out the remainder of his 33-month sentence in the UK.
Christopher Tappin had admitted knowingly aiding and abetting others in an illegal attempt to export zinc/silver oxide reserve batteries, a special component of the Hawk air defence missile, from the US to Iran via the Netherlands.
If as is expected, Ahsan and Ahmad are convicted in the US, is it even imaginable that they will be afforded the opportunity to serve part of their sentences in their native UK?
Many other Muslims have been whisked off to the US under the Extradition Act. On the same plane as Ahsan and Ahmad were three other co-religionists – Abu Hamza al-Masri, Adel Abdel Bari and Khaled al-Fawwaz who had himself spent 14 years in a British jail without trial awaiting extradition. Abu Hamza had already served a seven-year jail sentence in the UK before he was detained and subsequently extradited. Abdel Bari had been in detention since 1999 awaiting extradition for alleged involvement in the 1998 US embassy bombings in East Africa.
Cases such as these – the above list is by no means exhaustive – appear to point to the use of the Extradition Act as a tool to remove “undesirable” UK-based Muslim activists to the US where the lax legal framework makes prosecution more likely. Indeed, when it was drafted shortly after the 2001 attacks against the US, observers – myself included – warned that it had been deliberately drafted to allow the easy and speedy removal of “problem Muslims”. For example, one of the particularities of the Extradition Act is that the burden of proof required for those indicted to be sent to the US is substantially lower than would be expected in other jurisdictions. Authorities are only required to show “reasonable suspicion” and not to produce any prima facie evidence that an offence has been committed. Another particularity is that the Act is retrospective in that it can apply to alleged offences carried out years before it came into force.
As a product of the US-led “War on Terror” the Extradition Act was always a weapon, intended to add to a raft of laws brought in to curb threats to western hegemony. Since its purpose is to demonise, blackball or silence those who dare to challenge western foreign policy, in essence to delegitimise their right to dissent and express their beliefs, should we be at all surprised when its victims – Ahsan and Ahmad included – are afforded differential treatment?
Faisal Bodi is a writer and political commentator.